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Liberty and Virtue

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“Loki!”

The softly whispered word had an incongruous urgency to it, which irritated him. He had warned his brother for years that marriage wasn’t worth the trouble, and now here was the proof of it. Loki Odinson, rightful King of Asgard, was lying in bed while his lovely wife attempted to shake him awake. He willed his breathing to remain calm and steady. Perhaps she would believe he was still asleep and leave him alone a while longer.

“‘Tis high time to rise and greet the new day.”

She wasn’t giving up, was she? Typical. Still, he stubbornly refused to even crack his eyelids a slit. Eventually, she would learn that he could not be bossed around so easily. True, it may take a few centuries, but she’d get the message eventually.

She fell silent, and for a moment, he thought he had won. Then, suddenly, her thighs were perched on either side of him and her lips were seeking desperate purchase with his. He resisted as long as possible, but biology and instinct won out in the end.

“Ha!” she crowed in triumph as she pulled away. “I knew you weren’t asleep.”

“Sigyn,” he groaned, his eyes flying open. “Teasing your husband in this cruel fashion is uncalled for and terribly rude.”

“So is feigning slumber while the rest of the Asgard is already baking their daily bread.”

“Have you forgotten?” he asked as he sulkily pushed himself into a sitting position. “I am currently the Allfather. Others bake my bread.”

“Only if you do a proper job of protecting them,” she scolded, her arms crossed in indignation. “The great Odin has been deathly ill for six weeks now. The commoners are probably beginning to wonder if they should beg Thor to return and be his successor. Isn’t a miraculous recovery in order?”

He scowled at the mention of his brother’s name, although he knew she had a point. Their honeymoon had already lasted over three weeks, and she had graciously allowed him an extra two days to continue her long overdue lessons in the ways of romance. He had stalled long enough. It was time to leave their beautiful dream and reawaken to the realities of ruling a kingdom.

“What day is today?” he murmured sleepily. She nearly succumbed to the urge to yawn herself, but she clamped her jaw at the last moment. Damn. Oh, well. It had been worth a shot.

“Monday, July 14, 2014 by the Gregorian calendar of Midgard,” she replied.

He tried not to roll his eyes at her obsession with humanity. “Bastille Day, is it?" Loki rubbed his hands together and burst out into the opening bars of "La Marseillaise."

Sigyn merely smirked at his purposely off-key singing. “If you even think about launching into a medley from Les Misérables, I will chain you to this bed.”

He abruptly cut the song short and attempted a defiant frown. “Fine,” he capitulated with a shrug. His lips were still turned downward, but glittering eyes belied his delight at the fact that she remembered the conversation they’d had about Midgardian musicals during their courtship. “Although we never did get a chance to experiment with the shackles you foisted upon me on our wedding day.”

Sigyn’s maiden blush, absent these past few weeks, made an amusing reappearance on her rounded cheeks. “That was supposed to be a punishment, not an excuse to impress me further with your lovemaking techniques.”

“Can I help it if you seem to be obsessed with restraining me?” he teased. Then, infusing his voice with that coaxing smoothness that always affected her so profoundly, he leaned over and caressed her ear with his soft mouth. “Take me, Sigyn. Take me now.”

Her eyelids slid closed and a faint moan escaped her lips. “You’re impossible,” she gasped and he felt a shiver ripple down her entire body.

“Impossible to resist, you mean.” He tilted her chin toward him and gifted her with a deep, ardent, and yet still infinitely tender kiss. In exchange, she allowed him to siphon some of her magical energy, a bequest that she hadn’t bestowed since their memorable day in the library a week before. He eagerly drank the sweetness of her mana, its essence as potent as his and yet its character completely hers. By the time they pulled apart, he was convinced that their mystic powers would never be truly separate again. They were now completely one in body, mind, and spirit. He knew her as intimately in all three as he knew himself, and this perfect unity they shared, along with the passion of their kiss, was enough to leave both of them breathless--and yearning for more.

When they had finally sated themselves, Sigyn lay curled against his chest, her breathing slow and regular. Loki hated to move her, but he knew that what she said earlier was probably true: riots likely would ensue if he didn’t reappear as Odin soon. With a heavy sigh and a parting peck on her forehead, he gently nudged her back to her side of the bed and prepared to return to the tiresome duty of filling his father’s enormous boots.

His first task after transforming himself back into Odin was to discuss the new situation with his inner circle. In this case, that meant Skurge and Lady Eir. Skurge had been his faithful bodyguard for over six weeks now. His primary assignment had been to keep the kingdom apprised of the Allfather’s “delicate condition,” that is, play up the ruse of the grave and mysterious malady that had afflicted him since three weeks before their nuptials by “guarding” the Allfather’s empty chambers. Loki had allowed Lady Eir, as the chief healer and one of Sigyn’s closest friends, to be let in on the secret of his true identity several days ago. He had been loath to do it, but his new bride had assured him that he could rely on her discretion. Loki had to admit that he was pleasantly surprised at her reaction to the news. She had merely shrugged and admitted that she knew something was amiss with the way the Allfather had been acting. After Loki had appeared in Theoric’s place during the wedding ceremony, could it truly be a surprise that he had also been masquerading as Odin? Sigyn insisted that she believed her husband’s story that their monarch was alive and well, and Eir simply took her word for it.

As he reached the end of the apartment, he mused that it must be nice to have someone who trusted you so implicitly, and for a moment, the old pangs of jealousy gnawed at his soul. With a start, he realised that Sigyn’s confidence in him was just as unshakable, and that thought warmed him to the core. He wondered if he’d ever grow accustomed to her loyalty and affection. In some ways, he hoped he never did. The glow of surprise he felt every time he remembered it was far too pleasant.

He threw open the door to the passageway, startling Skurge, who, having been summoned to Loki’s apartment via thought message, had been leaning casually next to the doorframe. “Lord Loki!” he cried in alarm. “Er, I mean Allfather. How good it is to see you out and about again!” Lady Eir, who remained staidly perched on a bench nearby, hid a smile at the ex-soldier’s faux pas.

“Shut up, you idiot!” Loki hissed with his father’s stolen voice. “You should thank whatever pathetic gods you believe in that Eir is already privvy to our secret. Elsewise, I would banish your sorry soul straight to Hel!”

“Apologies, Allfather,” he muttered with a bow of contrition. “It won’t happen again.”

“It better not,” he declared with a flourish of his cape. Loki had forgotten how good it felt to bark commands like this. The thing about Sigyn was that she never took orders, leastways, not from him. She gave them. And as she was usually right, he found himself begrudgingly taking her instruction more often than he cared to admit. Of course, it was always more fun to persuade her to do what he wanted anyway, and he rarely had any trouble with that. She wasn’t exactly easy to please, but once he had accomplished that feat, she would willingly do anything for him in return and had done so on numerous occasions. At that point, he literally owned her, body, mind, and spirit. But then, with the way she could alter his behaviour, she owned him equally. They belonged to each other completely, and that fact both awed and terrified him. If he should ever lose her...

“Orders, Allfather?” Eir prompted, stirring him from his dismal thoughts.

He cleared his throat and his mind simultaneously. “Skurge, Heimdall is to be banished for his treason later this afternoon. You shall immediately take his place as Bifrost Guardian and shall be solely responsible for all that entails--with one minor addition.”

Skurge scratched his bald pate and blinked stupidly. “Which is?

“You are to inform me immediately if my itinerant brother returns from his tour of shenanigans with the Avengers,” he spat the last word like a rotten fruit, his humiliation at their hands a scabbed-over wound that yet itched. Perhaps with Sigyn’s love, there was hope for a full recovery, but he knew better than to expect any such kindness from the Fate that had mocked him since birth.

“Of course, my liege,” Skurge said with another obsequious genuflection.

Loki wished he could strike the toadying moron, but his better nature won out. Sigyn had clearly taken up residence inside his head as well as his heart. How bloody annoying.

Lady Eir patiently awaited her own instructions, which he gladly gave. “You are to return to the House of Healing and continue your regular duties there. You may inform your staff that the Allfather has nearly recovered and that there will be a celebration banquet in his honor this very night.”

“Hopefully it goes better for him than the last one did,” she said under her breath as she walked away.

Loki was about to leave and check on Sigyn when he noticed an ill look in Skurge’s eyes. “Out with it!” he demanded.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but news has reached me that Lady Sif has returned with the escaped prisoner you dispatched her to recover.”

Loki’s blood pressure spiked at the mention of his old flame, but a few slow deliberate breaths seemed to calm him. Another overreaction averted owing to Sigyn’s influence. “Excellent. I had hoped as much. Tell Lady Sif to bring her to the dungeon in an hour’s time. I must be certain that all is ready first.”

Skurge nodded and followed Lady Eir out of Loki’s wing of the castle. Loki turned back toward his apartment but paused before entering. If Lorelei was already here, then this inspection couldn’t wait any longer than necessary. Instead, he sent a gentle force of thought in the direction of his sleeping wife. He felt her slowly returning to consciousness as he informed her of his plans. Going to the dungeon. Meet me there when you can.

Such a rude awakening to so lovely a sleep! she replied in feigned indignance.

Not a nice feeling, is it? he teased, and he chuckled at the exasperation she emitted in return.

What’s the occasion?

Lorelei is back in Asgard.

He didn’t have to read her thoughts to know she was remembering how the despicable woman had ruined their happiness for six-hundred years by mind-controlling him into kissing her in front of Sigyn. Be right there. I wouldn’t miss this for anything, she finally transmitted, her tone sharp with icy resolve.

Loki’s lips curled into a grim smile. For once, he and his wife were in complete agreement.

********************************

Loki descended the stone steps to the dungeon with an inexplicable feeling of dread. True, the last time he was here, he had been an inmate only temporarily, released by his brother. But he was the Allfather now, and Thor was millions of miles away. Surely the ghosts of his past had no cause to haunt him when there was no threat of his being imprisoned again?

He walked slowly down the long wide corridor with large, empty cells on either side. A few mages were putting the finishing touches on the magical security for Lorelei’s cell, but other than that, he was alone. He knew not what madness drew his steps toward the chamber where he had spent the most miserable year of his life. Well, second most miserable. The worst period of his existence had occurred in a much darker and more forbidding cell in the underground fortress on Sanctuary. He shuddered to recall the tortures he had undergone there at the cruel hands of the Mad Titan.

He stopped just outside the familiar gold-filigree window and stared inside. For some reason, this place had been spared the renovations that were conducted on the rest of the jail. The room was just as he had left it with tables overturned and stains from smashed grapes permeating the floor. His mouth twisted ironically at the memory of his last abysmal night in this place. His mother had just been brutally murdered, and it was all his fault. If only he hadn’t told the Dark Elves where to find her! Sleep had eluded him completely, he recalled, which accounted for the miserable condition in which his brother had found him the next day. For one brief dreadful moment, all the feelings of guilt and rage that had plagued him then flooded back through him with double potency. He tried to banish them with a gesture of his arms and released a burst of excess mana instead, dispelling his disguise in the process.

He tossed a furtive glance toward the nearby mages, but they seemed too intent on their work to notice. Besides, he had other problems to worry about. The stream of mystic energy he had expelled seemed oddly attracted to the magical barrier of his old cell. Puzzled, he sent a psychic blast toward it. What he sensed there made his already frigid Jotun blood freeze to solid ice. Sigyn’s mana was infused in the anti-magic force field of the cell. For a moment, he thought he must be mistaken. But he now knew her power signature as well as he knew his own. This was definitely her handiwork. And the only logical explanation for it was that she had aided in its construction.

Darkness seemed to consume him from within, making his surroundings seem hazy and far away. His icy blood quickly heated, causing the painful sensation of frostbitten skin too swiftly revived. His heart pounded relentlessly, filling his ears with a rushing sound equivalent to the roar of Franang’s Falls. He was falling, falling into a black pit that he would never be able to climb out of again.

“How now, Loki?”

It was the last sound he wanted to hear right now. That sweet, deceptively angelic voice that he would’ve followed into Hel and beyond. But no more. He could never forget this betrayal. Never. Not if he lived another ten millennia. Not if she begged him in tears of true penitence and heart rending sorrow. Not if she made an unbreakable vow on the Sword of Truth itself. Not if she…

“‘Twas the only way,” she whispered softly, a solitary salt drop trickling down her cheek.

He turned his piercing gaze on her, hoping to wither her with its intensity. Of course, the harridan had heard his thoughts. They were connected, after all; body, mind, and soul. Damn his stupidity for ever having trusted her.

“I didn’t want to do it,” she continued with a shuddering breath, “but if you only knew what the alternative would have been…”

“Enough!” he bellowed, channelling all his wrath into a single word.

She fell obediently silent for once. An hour ago, he would have been delighted that he had finally succeeded in stilling her waggish tongue, but now, he didn’t believe he would ever know such foolish happiness again.

“Get out of my sight,” he ordered melodramatically. “I never wish to lay eyes on you again.”

She lowered her head penitentially, but switched to thought-speech despite his disapproval. Please. Just this once could you have mercy on a woman who loves you more than she has ever loved anyone else in her life?

He wanted to block her petty pleas, to ignore her existence, to banish her from his life forever. But there was apparently a minuscule moronic portion of him that still loved her despite his rage. He would rectify that presently, but for the moment, he may as well unload all of the resentment he had ever felt toward her in a volley of his favourite weapon.

Do you even have the slightest idea how hard it is for me to even consider forgiveness? I’m not a good person, Sigyn. You knew that when you married me. You don’t understand how difficult this sort of thing is for me. It would come more easily to you because you are a good person. Or at least, I believed you to be one.

Her eyes flashed in defiance. How they even dared to do so, he knew not. But before he could punish her for it, her response flashed into his mind. That’s where you are wrong. It’s not easy. It’s never been easy. Why do you think I held a grudge against you for six-hundred years? No matter how much I love you, no matter how much so-called virtue I possess, it is always a conscious decision I must make to forgive you. Like all worthwhile attributes, mercy must be cultivated.

What a line. What an excuse. What a load of utter tripe. This time, he chose to speak aloud. “Surely the goddess of fidelity would be naturally inclined toward absolution,” he mocked, venom oozing from every word.

Sigyn’s lips remained pressed firmly shut as though she were stubbornly reluctant to disobey his earlier order to be silent. He gave her a slight nod to let her know that he wouldn’t stop her if she chose to speak. She sighed, then elucidated in a clipped tone, “On the contrary, the fact that I am loyal makes it infinitely more devastating when someone betrays me. ‘Tis nearly impossible for me to comprehend how one could be so cruel towards someone they supposedly love.”

He tried to hide his surprise at her words. Generous, loving, irritatingly perfect Sigyn actually had to work at being good? If this pinnacle of morality struggled so much with clemency how could he ever hope to attempt it? It was impossible. He may as well give up now. “I perceive that we are at an impasse here,” he said quietly. He was bewildered to find that the admission actually saddened him.

“I suppose so.”

His blood was beginning to cool to its normal temperature. Was it possible that his anger was actually subsiding? “What do you recommend?” he asked, foolishly hoping she would apologise again. Perhaps he might consider accepting it this time.

She looked him straight in the eye, and there was no trace of affection in her gaze. “The solution is simple: we obviously must dissolve our marriage.”

There were few times in their relationship when Sigyn had been able to render Loki speechless. This was one of them. “Dissolve...our marriage?” he repeated brokenly after a long silence. It made sense. Only a few moments ago he had sworn he never wanted to see her again. Then, why this sudden disinclination to make good on his word?

Sigyn nodded in assent, and he recoiled as though she had struck him across the face. In fact, he wished she had slapped him rather than dealt him this emotional blow. The irony of her pronouncement didn’t escape him. Several minutes ago, blinded by his rage, he had lashed out at the only person who had ever loved him unconditionally. In his haste, he had hurt her as much as she had hurt him. And now she apparently wanted a divorce. It served him right, he supposed.

She was turning to leave when he impulsively called after her. “Wait.”

Sigyn pivoted to face her husband. “Yes?”

“I-I...” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

The stony look on her face began to crumble. Swallowing hard, she gestured for him to follow her.

Silently, she led him back down the hallway to what used to be Lorelei’s cell. She inclined her head in greeting to the mage workers who were hovering awkwardly outside. Apparently, they had overheard the argument and were aware that the Allfather who entered the dungeon had actually been his son in disguise. Loki suddenly felt horribly exposed.

Sigyn rolled her eyes. “I explained all this to them when I passed them earlier.” He gave her a dark Look. “Well, you were standing down there in your usual shape by that point. Trust me, they’re on our side.”

“‘Trust you?’ ‘Our side?’” His old resentment was starting to flare up again.

She opened the barrier to the cell with a flip of her wrist. “Just shut up and get in there. You’re not actually as hated by the world as you’d like to think.”

Her mandate rankled as usual, but he also felt his customary urge to follow it. Growling a little, he entered the cell.

The instant he was inside, Sigyn, having dismissed their small audience, raised the barrier again. An immense, invisible pressure surrounded him on all sides. He couldn’t breathe. Well, he could breathe, but he didn’t really want to. All he wanted was this oppressive weight to be removed. It was nearly unbearable. He wished for the oblivion of unconsciousness. Hel, he’d even take death over this agony. How could someone punish even a hardened criminal in such a barbaric way?

He raised his eyes to the cell door. Even from in here, he could see Sigyn trembling with distress. She knew how he must be feeling right now, and it was giving her physical pain as well. After an interminable moment, she looked at him. As their eyes met, she released the barrier with a second gesture, and he collapsed breathless to the floor.

It took a little while for him to retrain his lungs to work properly. Once he did, he sought Sigyn’s gaze again. Her eyes were cornflower pools about to overflow. Not merely with tears, but with pure love for the ungrateful man who lay sprawled miserably on the floor in front of him.

“You...saved me...from that?” he asked between gasps.

She said not a word, but gently bowed her head, tears streaming down her sweet face. She was the loveliest sight he had ever seen. Yes, she finally admitted. I created a new type of anti-magic force field that wouldn’t torment you but could still hold you captive. I even allowed for your use of basic transformation spells so you could retain your Asgardian appearance if you so chose. She clasped her shaking hands in front of her like a naughty child might before a stern parent. So, you forgive me? The uncertainty she was feeling nearly broke his heart.

He slowly dragged himself to his feet and out of the cell. “Forgive you?” he whispered, pulling her into his arms. “Oh, my darling. The only wretch who needs forgiveness is me.”

She buried her face in his leather jerkin and began to sob. He held her for what seemed like an eternity until her tears were finally spent. Finally, she gave a shuddering breath and looked up at him.

“I’ve only ever wanted what’s best for you.” Her eyes were brighter than sapphires now, her cry having washed them clean. “Even when I was angry with you, I never wished you ill.”

“I believe you,” he murmured, tracing her moist cheeks with his long fingers. “And I will never doubt you again.”

The way her lips twitched informed him that he had made yet another blunder. “Let’s not get carried away,” she said drily.

He released a low chuckle. “Fair point.”

She smiled, and he thought that he must have married the fairest creature in the Nine Realms. “What was it that I was supposed to forgive? I can’t seem to recall.” she asked in the gentlest voice he had ever heard her use.

And as they stood there in the midst of that impregnable dungeon, Loki realised with a flood of warmth that he had never felt more free.